Neglected no more - improving Africa's leafy vegetables
For several years, vegetables breeders in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania have been developing improved varieties of indigenous African vegetables, which are both high yielding and highly nutritious. Now, in a three year project, Bunda College and World Vision International are working with farmers in three districts in central Malawi, to scale up production of these improved varieties. Farmers are multiplying the seed for sale to NGOs, and supplying the vegetables to several markets - as well as benefitting from their own consumption. George Kalungwe speaks to those involved, including farmer Bester Nkhoma and Dr Weston Mwase of Bunda College.
Mwase These two are very nutritious if you compare them to most of the exotic vegetables like cabbage. They are very nutritious in terms of vitamin A. They also have high iron content so they are important in improving immunity.
Kalungwe Can you be specific, what activities are you doing in this programme?
Mwase We have gotten seed from different parts of the country as well as seeds from Nairobi, seeds from Tanzania that are improved, and then we are giving them to the farmers so that they plant. But also, we are trying to link the farmers to markets, so that eventually we will have a lot of people that will be cultivating and then making this available.
Kalungwe Somebody can argue that these are something which maybe grow in the wild, then why do we need seed?
Mwase Because those that actually grow in the wild, those are not improved as such. Those have very low yield. But these that we have, we have worked on them over the years, that are making this much better in terms of yield, as opposed to bonongwe that we just find growing along the roadside, or the one that you find in waste places. It has very low yield, but at the same time it is not quite high in terms of nutrition. So we want them to adopt these that are much better.
Kalungwe What impact do you think is your project having, in terms of assisting farmers to have the seed, and then at the same time improve their nutrition and even income?
Mwase Bunda College is working hard in actually making the seed available to quite a number of people. When we started, farmers were not even aware that they could get seed for indigenous vegetables. So by working with the farmers, providing them with the inputs, that has a multiplier effect, whereby the farmers produce the seed, share with their fellow farmers. By doing that we have most of the vegetables spreading to different parts of the country, but at the same time, they'll be consuming the vegetables and also be selling the seed. As such that will improve their nutrition as well as their economic situation.
Kalungwe Apart from the consumption, we are talking of farmers generating income from the sales of these indigenous vegetables. Is this working?
Mwase Yes, this will definitely work, because we have linked them to non-governmental organisations that purchase the seed. Over the years we have had a lot of demand from organisations such as World Vision, Emmanuel International, buying our seed and then promoting them. Now the demand has been quite overwhelming, such that we have not been able to meet it. As such, by promoting these farmers we have linked them to these organisations, such that these organisations will directly go to the farmers, buy the seed from the farmers, and with that we hope we will improve the livelihoods of the farmers.
Kalungwe In terms of Malawi, the growing of indigenous vegetables or crops is associated with tradition, the customs which we have in our various villages. Is there any deliberate attempt to ensure that there is passing on the knowledge to the younger generations?
Mwase Yes, within the project itself there is a component also of indigenous knowledge. We have been looking at the elders, how they have been growing these indigenous vegetables, how they have been processing these over time, making of mfutso and the like. So there is a deliberate effort where we are training also the younger generations to get knowledge on management of this.
Kalungwe You have talked about mfutso. That is something which our audience which are not very familiar with Chichewa cannot understand. Can you just expound on that?
Mwase This is just a process, mfutso is just a process of drying indigenous vegetables so that they can keep long, because most of these indigenous vegetables, you have them during the rainy season, but then come the dry season, most of them will not be available. So in a way of preserving that these vegetables should still be available, then you dry them and keep them somewhere so that later on you can prepare them, cook them. Then with that you are rest assured that you can have these indigenous vegetables throughout the year, rather than many three months within the year.
Kalungwe From Bunda College, I travelled north to meet a vegetable expert at the Kasungu Agricultural Development Division, which has also been involved in the project. On the way, I met with one of the farmers who has been growing the improved leafy vegetables.
Nkhoma (Translated) My name is Mrs Bester Ngala Nkhoma from Choyo village here in Kasungu District.
Kalungwe Where do you get the seed for these traditional food crops?
Nkhoma (Translated) We get the seed from World Vision International, but previously we used to neglect the seed. We did not know how important this seed was. But this has acted as an eye opener to us to know that these crops are very important to our lives.
Kalungwe What are you doing to ensure that you pass on the seed to the generations which are going to come after you?
Nkhoma (Translated) What we are doing to preserve this seed so that it should not run out of stock, we are multiplying it in our gardens and around our homes. To preserve these vegetables, we make sure that during the time when we have the abundance we prepare them by drying them in solar driers. The importance of the solar driers is that they keep the nutrition status of the vegetables constant.
Kalungwe Now finally I understand you are also selling these vegetables apart from just eating at your home you also sell? Where do you sell these vegetables and is this business profitable?
Nkhoma (Translated) We have markets readily available in the villages. So our fellow villagers come to buy from our doorsteps and we have also in main market at Chamama where we sell the vegetables. But our main cry is we want people from the towns also to come to us to buy these vegetables, because we are selling them at cheaper prices, so we want to sell them at better prices in the townships, thank you.
Mzembe My name is Enoch Mzembe. I am Principal Horticultural Officer for Kasungu ADD.
Kalungwe What is the background to this project where you are trying to promote the growing of traditional crops food crops?
Mzembe Of course, of late farmers have been going for these exotic vegetables like mustard, cabbage, but from the research findings it shows that these forgotten vegetables like luni, amaranthus are nutritionally higher than cabbage and other exotic vegetables. We should not undermine what we locally have. Sometimes exotic things are not always better than what we already have on the ground. That is why we encourage these indigenous vegetables, which nutritionally are much better than these exotic ones, and we encourage our farmers to go flat out on indigenous vegetables because in terms of proteins and vitamins, fibre, these are much better. End of track
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Food & nutrition